review by Patrick H. Moore
Charles Salzberg has always been an interesting crime novelist. He came late to writing fiction, but since publishing Devil in the Hole in 2013, his brilliant psychological study of John Hartman, a desperate Everyman who murdered his entire family and then skipped town, he has been quite prolific. Charles has not only written the entire Henry Swann series (5 volumes) starring his curmudgeonly PI protagonist; he now brings us a new novel Second Story Man, an intriguing in-depth look at Francis Hoyt, America’s most skillful high-end silver thief, and the two detectives — grumpy prematurely retired Charlie Floyd and the ebullient Manny Perez — who are determined to bring him to justice. The story takes the form of a police procedural narrated by three separate first person voices.
Second Story Man was published by Down and Out Books on March 26th.
I have always found Charles Salzberg to be that rarest of crime writers, an author who insists that his books be realistic. This means that in his stories heads do not typically explode “in a savage red rain”, and the fate of the world does not constantly hang in the balance. Rather, Mr. Salzberg presents us with utterly convincing characters who do real things. In Second Story Man, each of his three main characters — not to mention the supporting cast of Francis Hoyt’s girlfriends, as well as two memorably unsavory professional “fences”– ring true.
Along with his penchant for realism, Mr. Salzberg insists on maintaining “freshness” within the genre in which he chooses to work. This, of course, is no easy task. In Second Story Man, he achieves this by presenting the reader with three separate protagonists, each of whom speaks in his own distinctive first person voice.
The bad guy in this story is Francis Hoyt, high-end silver thief par excellence. He is like the mean little guy in middle school who picked fights with innocent children just for the fun of it. Francis had an abusive father who made his childhood hell, which helped him develop what a psychologist would likely term “borderline personality disorder”. In layman’s terms this means “having a very short fuse” and being prone to fits of irrational anger. Francis starts adult life as a second story man. He only gets caught once but that is enough. After that he swears off ladders and concentrates on the bling (only the best bling, you understand) that the kitchens of the elite have to offer.
As part of his overall odious make-up, Francis treats his girlfriends as disposable commodities.
Although Francis is undeniably obnoxious, not to mention cruel and even murderous, readers may gradually find themselves rooting for the little guy as he engages in his cat-and-mouse game with the two obsessed detectives who are doing their best to “breathe down his neck”. Mr. Salzberg cleverly depicts Francis Hoyt as both “underdog” and “untouchable”. In his mind, the detectives have no chance in hell of ever capturing him, and he likes nothing better than leading them on a wild goose chase in which apparent good “leads” vanish like the proverbial will-of-the wisp.
The two detectives who set out in pursuit of him — retired Connecticut homicide detective Charlie Floyd and suspended Miami PD detective Manny Perez — have distinctly different personalities and styles of speech: Floyd is hard-bitten and taciturn and not the kind of guy you want to be cross-examined by. Perez is bubbly and buttoned-down. Proud of his hard won American citizenship, he loves the U.S. and wants to protect it with every ounce of his fiber.
Floyd and Perez are both highly believable characters. Their pursuit of Francis Hoyt is done with verve, patience and creativity. Yet, as a reader, I was never certain whose side I was on: Francis Hoyt’s or that of the stalwart detectives.
The old saying, “there are many slips ‘twixt the cup and the lip” justly describes the detectives’ earnest but perhaps not entirely successful pursuit of Hoyt.
Any reader of crime fiction who enjoys a fresh, realistic psychological crime thriller cum police procedural full of twists and turns but sans gratuitous violence will want to purchase a copy of Second Story Man. This is a book that is likely to fare well in this year’s book award contests.